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Friday night football shines on city

Brawl back in '58 had killed lights

The adults talked about how the game would change history, help unite the community, and provide a sorely needed safe haven for city teenagers and their families to spend Friday night.

But for Gregory Benoit, a senior at Roxbury's O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, the chance to play yesterday in the first night high school football game at White Stadium in nearly 50 years was just a lot of fun.

"It's prom time, baby!" barked the school's team captain a few hours before taking the field against South Boston Education Complex. "The crowd at this game is pretty much going to be the biggest I will play for. This is the big time."

The crowd for the game at White Stadium, the first night game since a brawl halted the traditional weekly games in 1958, fell far short of the 2,000 fans expected for the contest. But the audience of 500 was a big crowd for a high school game. And with Boston University's band blaring, cheerleaders rooting on the sidelines, and Pop Warner players running up and down the stands, school spirit ran high under the glowing lights of the Jamaica Plain stadium.

"Nice night for a football game, huh?" said Barbara Hamilton, a Hyde Park resident selling raffle tickets to friends in the stands. "I'm trying to see if I can catch up with some of the old folks I used to see in the past. This is the kind of thing I grew up with."

Across the field, Anthony Silva and his buddies screamed for South Boston to stop an O'Bryant drive. Silva, a Boston Latin Academy football player who came to experience a Friday night game, admitted he was jealous of the teams on the field.

"It's almost like the real thing, the NFL," he said. "Latin Academy wants Friday night games."

Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who decided to resurrect Friday night football after a summer of deadly street violence in several neighborhoods, flipped a coin at midfield giving South Boston the ball to start the game.

Head referee Jim Kearney then called the teams' captains together. "This is what it's all about," he told them.

South Boston's Keith McNair received the kickoff and ran the ball back to the 38-yard line, eliciting a roar from the stands. The drive ultimately failed, and O'Bryant went on to win 8-0 on a Kerome Coley touchdown run.

Menino said that five more Friday night games would be played this season, with more city schools hoping to play under the lights next year. The mayor chalked up last night's somewhat disappointing turnout to a rainy forecast and competition from the Red Sox-Yankees game. "It will get bigger and bigger as the weeks go on," he said.

Dozens of uniformed and plainclothes officers were on hand for the game, keeping street violence at bay, for at least one night.

"They went all out to make sure it was well lighted. There were policemen and park rangers who greeted us here. I feel very safe," said Zakiya Alake, who brought her four young grandchildren to cheer for both teams.

Both schools were buzzing yesterday long before game time, with students taping posters in hallways, administrators slapping together commemorative programs, and teachers polling classes to see how many were planning on going to the game.

"Like, everybody's going. Even my mother's going," said Satisha Cleckley, 17, a senior at O'Bryant.

"And what did they say? There's going to be free ice cream?" asked her friend, Angelique Husbands.

Few could explain why it had taken decades for Friday night games to return to White Stadium.

East Boston High School began playing at night several years ago against its archrival, Dom Savio, in part because too many parents couldn't make it to 3 p.m. games. In 2002, Boston College High School installed light towers and moved its games to Friday nights.

Menino said he had been wanting to reestablish Friday night games for the past few years. When Kenneth Still took over as athletic director of the Boston Public Schools last year, he also made the games a top priority.

"I'm glad to see it back. Sorry it took so long. Hope it stays," said appreciative fan John McElrath. Bill Stewart, 54, whose father coached Boston English High School the last time games were played regularly on Friday nights in the city, also welcomed back the Friday night tradition.

"This is one of the great high school football stadiums in the country, but the fact that kids didn't have a chance to come and play on Friday nights was a shame," he said. "The bad kids stole it from the good kids. Now the good kids have it back."

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